Police Officers & Use of Force

In 1989, the United States Supreme Court in Graham v. Connor held that an officer’s use of force must be objectively reasonable under the totality of circumstances known to the officer at the time. Force “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight,” the court said. The result of the Supreme Court’s decision in Graham was that police officers are granted an incredible amount of discretion, often finding the law on their side.

In January of 2017, eleven national police organizations issued a new model policy: the “National Consensus Policy Use of Force” with the stated purpose being to “provide law enforcement officers with guidelines for the use of less-lethal and deadly force.” Worth noting that the first stated policy is to “value and preserve human life” and the incorporation of “de-escalation” as an alternative use of deadly force.

Many local and state departments have rejected the so-called “National Consensus” as a one-size-doesn’t-fit-all solution. In 34 states, training decisions are left to local agencies. Most, though, conduct no, or very little, de-escalation training. Additionally, there must be an acknowledgement of what may cause an officer to use excessive force in the first place. People of all races and walks of life harbor unconscious or implicit biases. Having an implicit racial bias means that it’s possible to act in prejudicial ways while sincerely rejecting prejudiced ideas. Patricia Devine, a psychology professor and director of the Prejudice Lab, argues that “even if people don’t believe racist stereotypes are true, those stereotypes, once absorbed, can influence people’s behavior without their awareness or intent.” The long-term criminalization of African-American men and women over hundreds of years plays a huge role here:

“Since slavery, Black people have been colored as savage, unclean, sexually and socially deviant and criminal…. this concept of the “thug.” Its etymology and definition state “thug” means common or violent criminal. It is used as a death sentence, to delegitimize and marginalize Black people, their rage and their resistance.”

Because of this, there must be an examination of who exactly is in law enforcement and to the extent they reflect the communities they serve. The share of minority officers nationally has nearly doubled in three decades, growing from 14.6 to 27.3 percent since 1987, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. But that still doesn’t equal the share of minorities in the U.S., at 37.2 percent. A possible solution is to seek out recruits from new constituencies such as Returning Peace Corp Volunteers, as they are uniquely educated and trained, community minded, and understand what it means to be a minority in a majority community. Also, organizations like the National Black Police Association have for decades committed themselves to diversity in law enforcement and better community relations.

Prepared by Candice S. Petty, Esq. for 20/20 Bipartisan Justice Center © 2018

Toolkits & Policy Resources

Campaign Zero’s “Police Use of Force Project”

This is the first open-source database of police use of force policies for the 100 largest U.S. city police departments. These documents, obtained through FOIA requests via MuckRock, will be used for future analyses identifying the ways in which they impact police accountability.

Policy Link’s “Beyond Confrontation: Community-Centered Policing Tools” Toolkit

In 2001, PolicyLink and Advancement Project released Community-Centered Policing: A Force for Change, a report intended to help advocates, policymakers, and police officials understand models addressing the myriad challenges facing police departments, police-community relations, and the advancement of community-centered policing practices.

National Black Police Association

The NBPA serves as an advocate forum for minority police officers and establishes a national network of professional development and training for all police officers and those parties interested in law enforcement. Established in 1972, its mission is to improve the relationship between Police Departments as institutions and the minority communities, to evaluate the effect of the policies and programs within the Criminal Justice System upon the minority community; to serve as a mechanism to recruit minority police officers on a national scale; to work toward police reform in order to eliminate police corruption, police brutality and racial discrimination; and to educate police officers to perform with professionalism and compassion.

Further Reading

Supreme Court Rules for Police Officer in Excessive Force Case

Liptak, Adam

New York Times | 2 April 2018

How Racial Diversity Makes Police Forces Better

Cage, Monkey

New York Times | 5 December 2017

Can diverse police departments ease police tension?

Stateline, Jen Fifield

The Nation | 22 August 2016